Intrusive thoughts can be nothing short of torture. They enter on fear’s tail, flicking themselves into the mind like a flame cast from fear’s cauldron, and if you don’t have enough water in your well of Self, you’ll quickly find yourself caught in the wildfire of your mind. The untrained mind (and we’re all untrained until fear drags us into its underworld and breaks us open) does what any scared child would do: seeks reassurance by obsessively Googling, asks others for reassurance, journals about the intrusive thought, or tries to argue with it. None of these work. It doesn’t matter if your thought is hanging its hat on relationship anxiety, health anxiety, friendship anxiety, social anxiety, sexuality, or any other anxious hook; when fear takes over it can be difficult to douse the flames.
If seeking reassurance and arguing are ineffective, what are other options? It’s about recognizing that the thought is a distress flare pointing you in the direction of your inner world. For a trained mind and an uncorked heart, a fear-based thought will enter but it will quickly be doused by the calm pool that lives at the center of each and every one of us. When we practice tending to our inner world through practices like meditation and journaling, we learn to access this innate calm and respond to the thoughts with a measured, wise self (the loving inner father that I wrote about two weeks ago). And when we’ve learned to feel our feelings instead of pushing them away, the flames of the fear are quickly doused by the clear waters of the heart.
The fastest and most effective way to rewire and turn inward when an intrusive thought enters is to ask the cut-through question for intrusive thoughts that I often talk about in my work, which is:
“What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”
For in order to heal, we have to be willing to drop down from the seductive and compelling chambers of the mind and enter the quiet, tender caves of the heart where the long-forgotten feelings live and wait for our tender attention. This question leads the way.
This isn’t easy work; inner work never is. It’s not a one-time process where you ask the question and your intrusive thought is magically resolved. No, this is daily, ongoing, and multi-layered. And when an intrusive thought is tenacious, it’s essential to keep in mind the following:
Intrusive thoughts are symptomatic of deep, unresolved pain, and the intensity and tenacity of the intrusive thought is in equal measure to the depth of your pain.
Michael Singer explains this beautifully in The Untethered Soul:
“If you close around the pain and stop it from passing through, it will stay in you. That is why our natural tendency to resist is so counterproductive. If you don’t want the pain, why do you close around it? Do you actually think that if you resist it will go away. It’s not true. If you release and let the energy pass through, then it will go away. If you relax when the pain comes up inside your heart, and actually dare to face it, it will pass. Every single time you relax and release, a piece of the pain leaves forever. Yet every time you resist and close, you are building up the pain inside you. It’s like damming up a stream. You are then forced to use the psyche to create a layer of distance between you who experiences the pain and the pain itself. That is what all the noise is inside your mind: an attempt to avoid the stored pain.”
Intrusive thoughts are the noise in your mind and they’re an attempt to avoid the stored pain. Why do we want to avoid stored pain? Because as a child without loving, grownup arms to hold us through the tempestuous emotional storms that shake through young bodies, the feelings were too overwhelming and we did the most intelligent thing we could do: shut down and travel up to the safer and more predictable realm of the mind.
If we had been taught early in life how to feel our feelings, the stream wouldn’t dam up quite so much (or perhaps even at all). But most of us were raised by adults who were never taught how to feel their feelings, so they shut down and passed the model of emotional shutdown onto you. Even if you had parents who could hold your emotional pain without judgement or shame, if you didn’t see them holding their own pain with self-compassion, the ability to hold your own pain would have been limited, for what we see is more powerful than what we’re explicitly or implicitly taught.
As it is, most people arrive on the shores of adulthood with a halting emotional literacy, and intrusive thoughts are one of psyche’s emissaries that guide them back down out of the head and into the heart. But only if you resist the impulse to jump on the back of the intrusive thought and Google it down into the underworld! That’s why asking yourself the question, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?” guides you along the riverways of re-wiring. And then you have to be willing to slow down long enough to listen for what arises.
Note: This post on How to Grieve will help you break down the process of grieving into manageable steps, but keep in mind that when you’ve created lifelong habits to push away pain, you’re not likely to reverse those habits quickly. Rewiring from resisting to welcoming is the work of a lifetime.